Transition from park camping to shelters won't happen overnight, mayor warns

The City of Victoria will start enforcing a bylaw prohibiting daytime sheltering in parks today, but the mayor is warning it will be weeks before people can walk through Beacon Hill Park without seeing tents dotting the landscape.

Lisa Helps said campers are expected to move into temporary shelters over the next two weeks — a 70-space transitional shelter on Russell Street in Vic West is expected to open ­Monday, while a tiny-home ­village near Royal Athletic Park is set to open May 12.

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The mayor said those who have accepted the offer of shelter in either facility and are just waiting to move in will be given a grace period and won’t have to take down their tents each day.

However, those who have refused the offer of indoor shelter will have to abide by the law — they can erect a tent as of 8 p.m. but it must be removed by 7 the following morning.

“It will be a process,” she said. “It will be very difficult, but 100 people will have a place to go as of Monday. I think expectations have to be realistic. People won’t be able to stroll through Beacon Hill Park or Stadacona Park on Sunday and see all the tents gone.”

The city allowed all-day ­camping in parks when the pandemic forced shelters to close or reduce the number of beds due to physical-distancing requirements.

Since then, the province has purchased hotels and other buildings to provide enough spaces for people to move indoors.

Last month, the city decided to reinstate the old rules that allowed people to pitch tents in public parks only from dusk to dawn.

The city also released a strategy for enforcing the bylaw, which aims to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of people camping in the parks.

That strategy includes grace periods to comply, bylaw ­officers helping campers to downsize, while outreach ­workers assist people with ­packing and moving when indoor spaces are available.

Those who refuse to accept shelter and who refuse to leave after 7 a.m. could have their tents and other belongings impounded, and the city has the option to seek an injunction to enforce the bylaw.

“We hope it doesn’t get to that point, but we will go to court,” said Helps. “There’s no reason for [camping in parks]. There are places to go.”

Victoria police said Friday they would continue to work with bylaw enforcement as required.

B.C. Housing estimates there have been as many as 220 people staying overnight in the region’s parks in recent months, though the agency claims as many as 124 people have moved indoors since December.

About 100 are being offered places to stay this week.  

The agency said it’s difficult to estimate how many people will refuse places in the new shelters, but reported seven people moved from parks to shelter on Thursday.

It noted that more than 300 shelter spaces will open soon, including at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre and the recently purchased Capital City Center Hotel.

Helps said reinstating the camping bylaw and moving people to shelter is about getting people inside and onto a path to permanent housing.

“We want them to take these offers of shelter, and as people move inside to Russell or the tiny homes or the arena or whatever, they will be guaranteed a permanent home coming out the other side,” she said.

As for what happens when the campers are gone from the parks, Helps said parks staff are developing cleanup plans.

“It will be a big job and it will take some time,” she said.

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